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3 things I learned from teaching students about horror pioneer George Romero’s movies during these scary times

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3 things I learned from teaching students about horror pioneer George Romero’s movies during these scary times

I’m no fan of horror movies. At least I wasn’t until I moved from Hollywood back to my hometown of Pittsburgh, where I met the legendary independent filmmaker George Romero, best known as the inventor of the modern-day zombie and movies like “Night of the Living Dead.”

I had avoided seeing George’s movies for two reasons. First, they’re scary. Second, when I was a teen, my mother had a role in a Romero film initially titled “Hungry Wives.” After seeing some raw footage in which I saw a woman in the movie disrobe, I feared that my mother was naked in it. (Spoiler alert: She wasn’t.)

Carl Kurlander (left) and George Romero in 2017.
Steeltown Entertainment Project, CC BY-SA

This past year, I gained a deeper appreciation of his work while teaching “Making the Documentary: George Romero and Pittsburgh,” a course in which my students had access to the newly acquired Romero Archives.

Some students were big fans of the great filmmaker, who shot 14 movies in Pittsburgh. Others had no idea who he was. Together, we learned three important lessons about survival and the human condition. I believe they are especially important today because of the coronavirus pandemic and the damage it’s unleashing.

An interview with filmmaker George Romero.

1. He was a visionary

Romero, who died in 2017, didn’t make just popular zombie flicks. His other films, which garnered less acclaim and profits, transcend horror movies.

Many of today’s filmmakers producing socially conscious hit thrillers, like “Get Out” creator Jordan Peele and “Shape of Water” creator Guillermo Del Toro, credit Romero for pioneering this genre.

Take “Season of the Witch,” the official name of that Romero movie my mother was in – fully clothed. It features a suburban housewife who dabbles in witchcraft to explore her feminist powers – and uses it to dispose of her abusive husband.

Another good example is “Martin,” Romero’s favorite. Romero shot it in a once-thriving steel town outside Pittsburgh. The titular main character, a young man who may or may not be a vampire, represents the threat of generational change to a community literally having the life sucked out of it.

Particularly prescient is “The Crazies,” which tells the story of a mysterious virus that infects the citizens of Evans City, Pennsylvania, driving some of them mad. The government calls in the military and quarantines the town. It’s soon hard to tell who is crazy because of the virus and who went insane because of the circumstances.

The government ends up losing the vaccine that could save everyone. Let’s hope this isn’t a case of art predicting real life.

Trailer from ‘The Crazies,’ George Romero’s 1973 film about ‘madness unleashed by human error.’

2. He established a powerful metaphor for the human condition

What makes Romero’s vision unique is that his worst monsters aren’t aliens or creatures menacing humanity. Instead, those monsters are us.

In “Night of the Living Dead,” strangers gather in a farmhouse. The fighting among the humans themselves leads to their demise as much as the attack of the undead in what is widely considered the first modern zombie flick. Interestingly, Romero never used the term “zombie” in the script. He called the creatures “ghouls.”

When Romero shot “Dawn of the Dead,” as a hippie at heart he decided to use a local shopping mall as a set. It also served as a prop to make a statement about the mindless consumer culture that all Americans seemed trapped in – even in the afterlife.

For “Day of the Dead,” Romero converted an abandoned underground mine shaft in Wampum, a small Pennsylvania town about 40 miles from Pittsburgh, into a bunker. There, the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse hunker down while the military and government officials fight with scientists trying to better understand the undead. Meanwhile, a zombie that scientists are trying to “train” seems more humane than the folks on whom the fate of our species rests.

The ‘Day of the Dead’ trailer.

3. He was a truly independent and maverick filmmaker

Romero and nine of his friends each initially pitched in US$600 in seed money to make “Night of the Living Dead.” The film later grossed more than $30 million, on what according to many reports was a total budget of only $114,000.

But neither Romero nor his investors would pocket much of that bounty because of a dispute with the distributor. The movie became upon its release one of only a handful of films without copyrights, because of a last-minute title change. (The original title was “Night of the Living Flesh Eaters.”)

Romero could have leveraged the unexpected fame that came without a fortune into a ticket to Hollywood. Instead, he stayed in Pittsburgh, working with low budgets and small crews and retaining creative control over his projects.

My students were inspired by tales of Romero’s ingenuity. For example, because Romero decided that zombies must walk slowly, he faced a problem with how the first zombie would catch up to one of the film’s protagonists in the first scene of “Night of the Living Dead.”

When it turned out the car the production had borrowed had been in an accident, instead of having it fixed, Romero used the dent as an excuse to have the car hit the tree. The staged accident make it easy for the zombie to nearly catch – and terrify – her.

A tribute to ‘Night of the Living Dead’ 25 years after its original release.

An inspirational legacy

After the pandemic turned my students’ lives into something out of a Romero movie, they found inspiration in how the horror pioneer made the most from what was around him. They kept interviewing subjects over Zoom and developed their own remote way of sharing footage and editing to complete their film.

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Many of them now aspire to make films independently as Romero did and see where their imaginations take them without decamping to Hollywood. While steering clear of COVID-19, they are figuring out how to survive just as the heroes of his movies did.

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Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work

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Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work


The world of work is changing all the time. Technology is driving innovation and productivity, leading to the creation of new industries and employment opportunities. This means people need new skills to meet the demands of an ever-changing economy.

While universities can and do equip young people with important skills, tertiary education isn’t available to everyone. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where about 43% of students in 2023 who qualified to pursue a bachelor’s qualification at university could not because of limited spaces.

Valuable knowledge and skills can also be acquired through non-formal and alternative pathways, however. We are education scholars who ran a pilot project using artistic media to teach important life skills to young adults (18–24 years old). Our project, Myturn, ran in South Africa’s Western Cape province over ten months in 2020. It used simple technology like smartphones and editing software to make short films.

Myturn benefited participants in several ways, as we’ve documented in a study. For instance, it honed their communication and teamwork skills. It bolstered their digital skills. It also allowed the students to connect with their communities. This connection, in turn, provided a platform for the communities to witness the participants’ willingness to learn and become change agents, while also allowing them to share their own stories and experiences.

The project showed how short films could be used to change the way people learn. This method meets many needs of young people by combining the learning of soft skills, computer literacy and artistic expression. It gets them ready for the problems of the future – not just ready for work, but also as socially involved people.

Five main benefits

Our research paper focused on the perceptions of nine (out of the initial group of 17) Myturn participants. All had completed secondary school. They were involved in various dance, drama, music and visual arts projects when recruited for Myturn and came from semi-rural communities in the Langeberg district of South Africa’s Western Cape province.

In 2020 they found themselves in a transitional phase between jobs, were preparing to enter the workforce for the first time, or were between school and tertiary education. They were also dealing with the effects of the pandemic, which began after we’d launched Myturn. This global crisis created difficulties but was also an opportunity for learning and adaptation.

During the project, participants learned the technology and skills needed to create and produce their own short films.

Our study identified five ways in which participants benefited from the project.

1. Improved emotional intelligence and soft skills:

Making short films helps build skills like leadership, teamwork and communication. It pushes young creators to figure out how to work together on complex tasks. This helps team members from different backgrounds understand and care about each other. People learn how to resolve disagreements, make their points clear, and inspire others to work towards a shared goal. These skills are necessary in any professional setting.

2. Improved digital skills and connectivity:

Participants learned how to use software programmes, handle digital content and interact with online groups. They were empowered to offer their skills globally and work remotely and flexibly.

3. Encouraged new ideas and creative ways to solve problems:

Making short films encourages people to try new things and to look at problems from different angles. This way of handling problems creatively makes one more flexible.

As a way to reach their artistic goals, participants learned to make changes and accept loss. This approach is in high demand across various sectors.

4. Supported personalised learning and finding out more about oneself:

Making a short film is a very personal process. It lets people explore themes that are important to them based on their own experiences, interests and goals. Personalising the way people learn reveals their skills, flaws and interests.

One participant, reflecting critically on her role as short film producer in the project, showcased her ownership of learning and the potential for transpersonal growth:

Being able to watch my video back before sending it made me realise how fast I speak and that (I) can come across as unclear, so I worked on speaking slower and I was satisfied with the final product.

Participants became more self-aware and confident. Young adults need help to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

One told us:

When the opportunity came I told myself it’s time to stretch myself and explore my skills.

5. Made the community more involved and gave people more power:

Making short films is a way to hear opinions that aren’t always heard. A participant said she enjoyed the chance her short film presented “to be able to comment or talk about the issues that everybody is most likely aware of but refuses to publicly speak/comment on”.




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I introduced social entrepreneurship to my trainee teachers — why it’ll make them better at their jobs


Young film-makers can bring attention to problems that matter in their communities by sharing their stories. This can start a conversation and help bring people together. This involvement goes beyond the project. People can be inspired by hearing these stories, which can lead to a shared sense of power and a dedication to making things better.

What came next

In the time since the Myturn project, participants have flourished. One was selected for a six-month jewellery design research programme in Belgium. Three more have been accepted for tertiary education; others became involved in education as teaching assistants. One started a media house company with a colleague. Two participants created their own YouTube channels and another started making TikTok reels with her brother.

While the project itself couldn’t guarantee personal change within its informal setting, it did offer significant benefits for some participants: developing critical self-awareness, overcoming cultural and language barriers, and gaining a deeper understanding of themselves. This suggests that meaningful interactions, both in person and online, can equip young people with valuable skills. These skills, like critical thinking and empathy, will be crucial for navigating their future lives and careers.



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Stanley Kubrick redefined: recent research challenges myths to reveal the man behind the legend

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Stanley Kubrick redefined: recent research challenges myths to reveal the man behind the legend


Even 25 years after his death, Stanley Kubrick remains one of the most widely known directors of the 20th century. Many of the 13 films he made – including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) – are still revered today and remembered as some of the best movies ever produced.

To coincide with the anniversary of his death on March 7 1999, I have co-authored the first full-length biography of Kubrick in more than two decades. Based on the latest research into Kubrick, access to his archive at the University of Arts London, other repositories around the world, family members, cast and creatives, we have delved into his life in detail that few others have achieved.

Shy but not reclusive

During his life Kubrick was famously shy with the media, and frequently interpreted as reclusive. He granted very few interviews, and only when he had a film to publicise. He learned early on that he was not good at promoting his films personally. In the few interviews with Kubrick that survive, he comes across as nervous and ill at ease.

Kubrick was so shy and protective of his private life that few people recognised him publicly. Though born and brought up in New York, he settled in England in the 1960s and remained there. He could wander into Rymans in St Albans and buy stationery (he loved paper, pens and the like) or get a new pair of spectacles and no one would recognise him. It helped that he often used his brother-in-law’s name when doing so.

In fact, Kubrick was such an unfamiliar figure that an imposter went around London’s clubs and bars in the early 1990s pretending to be him. The imposter was only found out when Kubrick started receiving strange phone calls from spurned lovers and bars with huge unpaid drinks tabs.

Kubrick archive

His archive only opened in 2007, but it provides an insight into this extremely private director’s world as never before. Kubrick was a hoarder and held on to the miscellany and detritus of his personal and professional worlds. This included high school yearbooks, photographs he took for Look magazine, receipts, bills, invoices, as well as the voluminous amount of material a film production (especially a Kubrick production) generated.

Kubrick in 1949, working as a photographer.
Phillip Harrington / Alamy

Through studying this archival material, combined with our new interviews, we learned about the human being behind the mythology. Kubrick was a film director but he was also a son, brother, husband, father and friend.

He liked to entertain, chat, make jokes and cook. He loved making American-style fast food and huge sandwiches, often using a microwave as he was a lover of gadgets, adopting new technology as soon as it became available. This was as true of his private life (where he used car phones, pagers and computers) as his working life where he was an early adopter of Steadicam cameras and the Avid editing system.

He had a fear of flying, but it was based on his own knowledge as a trained pilot and frequent monitoring of radio traffic control. It’s not true that he never went over 30mph in a car, as has been claimed. Rather, he loved cars – fast German ones in particular – but frequently crashed them.

Kubrick at work

We uncovered much about Kubrick’s working practices too. Kubrick was a master of the insurance claim. He never hesitated to file one following an accident or fire on set. Not only did this help him to recoup his budget but it also gave him precious time to regroup and think about his options.

We also discovered how Kubrick had to beg, borrow and virtually steal to get most of his projects greenlit. It wasn’t until he signed with Warner Brothers in the 1970s – from A Clockwork Orange onwards – that he had a permanent financial backer. But even then he wasn’t guaranteed funding if the project wasn’t right.

A black and white close up of Stanley Kubrick's face.
Kubrick was famously shy in public.
Mayimbú/Wikimedia

And those projects included the famously never made biopic of Napoleon as the time wasn’t right, or his never-to-be-made Holocaust film, Aryan Papers, which lacked a big star and came too close on the heels of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.




Read more:
2001: A Space Odyssey still leaves an indelible mark on our culture 55 years on


It is also tempting to wonder what would have happened had he made the film Burning Secret in 1956, with MGM studios, with whom he had signed a contract. Would he have become another studio stooge or been fired for being too much of a maverick? What would have been the implications for his career?

While we can only imagine how those projects would have turned out, what remains is an extraordinary body of work that includes thousands of photographs, three documentaries and 13 feature films. Stanley Kubrick may have shunned the limelight, but his films have had a profound influence on the movie and television industries, as well as a lasting impact on popular and political culture.



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How non-English language cinema is reshaping the Oscars landscape

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How non-English language cinema is reshaping the Oscars landscape


Over the past few years, the Oscars have taken a decidedly international turn.

This year, of the 10 films nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, three of them – “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Past Lives” and “The Zone of Interest” – are non-English language films.

In the first two decades of the Academy Awards, only three foreign films – all European – earned Oscar nominations: the 1938 French film “La Grande Illusion,” which was nominated for best picture, or outstanding production, as it was then known; the 1944 Swiss film “Marie Louise,” which was the first foreign film to win an Academy Award, for best screenplay; and the 1932 French film “À nous la liberté,” nominated for best production design.

As a scholar of film history, I see the recent recognition of non-English language films as the result of demographic changes in the industry and within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself.

Hollywood’s dominance wanes

During World War II, Hollywood experienced record financial success, with one-third of its revenue coming from foreign markets – mainly the United Kingdom and Latin America. The industry leveraged the appeal of American movies to employ them as cultural ambassadors to promote democratic ideals. Notably, a popular film like “Casablanca” not only entertained audiences but also served as potent anti-fascist propaganda.

After the war, co-productions and distribution agreements with foreign studios opened new markets, boosting Hollywood’s economic influence and reinforcing English language cinema’s global dominance.

However, by the late 1940s, Hollywood experienced some challenges: Studios lost an anti-trust case that challenged their monopoly over producing, distributing and exhibiting films, while television threatened to siphon away theatergoers. With studios undergoing major budget and production cuts, a 1949 Fortune magazine article posed the question “Movies: The End of an Era?

During that same period, art film movements in nations such as Sweden, France, Italy and Japan arose to contest Hollywood’s dominance, breathing new life into the cinematic arts.

These works contrasted sharply with Hollywood films, many of which had become formulaic by the 1950s and were constrained by an outdated censorship code.

A category of their own

Between 1947 and 1956, foreign films received honorary Oscars, with France and Italy dominating the accolades. In 1956, the category of “best foreign language film” was officially established as an annual recognition, marking a pivotal moment in Oscars history.

However, any film nominated in that category is also eligible to be nominated in the broader best picture category. The only stipulation is that it needs to have had a theatrical run in a Los Angeles County commercial movie theater for at least seven consecutive days.

Italian director Federico Fellini’s ‘La Strada’ won the first Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1957.
Louis Goldman/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Until this year, only 10 foreign films have garnered this dual nomination.

In 2020, the South Korean film “Parasite” became the first non-English language film to win both best international feature film – formerly known as best foreign language film – and best picture. Director Bong Joon-Ho also won the award for best director that year. Accompanied by an interpreter, he gave his acceptance speech in Korean.

During the 2019 Oscars, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón – introduced in Spanish by actor Javier Bardem – accepted the Academy Award for what was then still called best foreign language film for his film “Roma.” During his speech, he joked that he had grown up “watching foreign language films and learning so much from them. … Films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless.’”

Breathing new life into film

Cuarón’s comments wryly question why English is considered the default language of a global industry. They also highlight how the categories of “Hollywood film” and “foreign film” aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

As in the past, many of the filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the medium are from outside the U.S. This isn’t due to a lack of talent within the U.S.; instead, it’s largely due to a lack of institutional funding for independent productions.

On the other hand, in countries such as France, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Iran, there are state-sponsored programs to support filmmakers. These programs, which aim to promote national cultural expression, allow for more experimentation.

In recent decades, the cinematic landscape has been revitalized by movements from abroad, such as Denmark’s Dogma 95 collective, South Korea’s IMF noir genre and Greek Weird Wave films. Filmmakers associated with these movements often transition to making English language cinema.

Take Yorgos Lanthimos, director of the Best Picture nominee “Poor Things.” Lanthimos first gained recognition for his contributions to the Greek Weird Wave, a cinematic movement that uses absurdist humor to critique societal norms and power structures. It emerged during the country’s economic crisis in the 2010s.

Similarly, “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho, known for his earlier Korean language films, is emblematic of the IMF noir movement, which explored the profound repercussions of the late 1990s financial crisis in South Korea that was caused by policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

Balding middle-aged man with beard and red jacket.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos.
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

The nomination process

As Michael Schulman, author of “Oscar Wars,” argues, viewing the Academy Awards as a “pure barometer of artistic merit or worth” is a mistake.

Numerous factors, including the aggressiveness of Oscar campaign strategists and publicists working around the clock, as well as the composition of the awards committee, exert great influence over the outcome.

In the case of foreign films, the process is twofold. To secure an Oscar nomination as a country’s entry, a foreign film must first gain approval from a committee in its native country. It is then submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and subjected to a vote by the academy. Only one entry is allowed per country.

The intricate dynamics of this process are illustrated by the case of the French film “Anatomy of a Fall,” which was nominated for a best picture Academy Award but not best international feature from France. This decision was influenced by France’s small national nominating committee, which, disconnected from the current climate of the U.S. academy, favored the nostalgic, culinary romance “The Taste of Things,” starring Juliette Binoche.

A more diverse academy

The role of the voting committee in determining which films even reach consideration cannot be overstated. Over the last few years, this is what has most radically changed in the academy. In 2012, its composition was 94% white, 77% male and had a median age of 62.

As highlighted by Schulman, the #Oscarssowhite controversy in 2015 spurred changes to the academy’s makeup, in the hopes of addressing the industry’s under-recognition of the achievements of people of color.

There was also a concerted effort to enhance geographical diversity and infuse the awards with a more global perspective. In 2016, the new invitees to the academy were more diverse: 46% were female, 41% were nonwhite, and they came from 59 different countries. This year, a groundbreaking 93 countries submitted nomination ballots, signifying unprecedented global participation in the Oscars.

Perhaps most significantly, beginning in 2024, the academy has required that, for a film to qualify for a Best Picture nomination, it must meet two out of four standards established by the academy.

The criteria include having at least one lead or significant supporting actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, or centering the main storyline on an underrepresented group. They also require representation in creative leadership positions and crew roles, along with paid apprenticeships for underrepresented groups. Even senior marketing teams require representation. All of these requirements lend themselves to the inclusion of more international film nominees.

Streaming distribution has also democratized access to non-English language cinema, which was previously limited only to niche audiences in art house theaters in large cities.

The distribution company Neon, established in 2017, has been another crucial factor in reshaping the Oscars landscape. Led by Elissa Federoff, Neon is committed to breaking industry barriers, diversifying content, transcending language barriers and engaging with younger audiences through platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Neon distributed both “Parasite” and “Anatomy of a Fall.”

As the Oscars evolve into a more globally conscious platform, the future of film seems destined to be shaped by those who think beyond the limitations of what was once considered “foreign,” and remain advocates for the universal language of the cinema.



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